The last two decades of my life have been a crash course in the Christian faith. And when I say crash course, I mean it has been swift and at points stunningly painful. But our God, who doesn’t waver, is faithful.
I came to faith in Jesus in my 20s without the benefits of a Christian upbringing. Five years later, I married Tilmann Geske, a young pastor in our native Germany. I was 29; he was 31. I am more extroverted, and he was the introvert. He was a careful student of theology and Scripture and a very good preacher and teacher. He loved sports, to a fault he would say, and he delighted in reading his New Testament straight from the Greek text.
Five years into our marriage, we landed on the mission field in Turkey—a Muslim-dominated country that, at the time, offered not only a semblance of freedom to do Christian work, but what appeared to be a safe environment.
However, the call to follow Jesus and teach people His way of salvation turned out to be far from safe. A decade after we arrived in Turkey, my husband—and the father of our three children—was murdered, along with two Turk converts who were working with him at a small Christian publishing house in the city of Malatya, where we lived.
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Tilmann and I had come to Turkey in 1997, to Adana, a large city in the southern part of the country. We didn’t realize it, but we were being watched by Turkish government intelligence from nearly the day we arrived. While it is legal to be a Christian missionary in Turkey, it is controversial, and is the subject of overwhelming slander by authorities, who paint Christians as immoral people seeking to ruin the nation and its culture.
Before Tilmann’s death at the hands of anti-Christian, pro-army zealots, our work there was typically peaceful and without incident.
Tilmann’s nature was to keep a low profile. We always felt safe, even up to the day he was murdered, and we had warm, genuinely respectful relationships with our Turkish Muslim neighbors, who knew us beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by the Turkish media and among government authorities, particularly the Turkish army. Our children, who were 13, 11 and 8 when Tilmann was killed, had scores of devoted Turkish friends who were playmates and buddies. We were far from what they had been told about missionaries.
Tilmann earned a living teaching German and English while also helping translate Bibles and Bible-related curricula for the Turkish people. We also helped launch several churches, which were typically small and met in home settings.
By the time we left Adana in 2003 and came to Malatya to continue our work, we sensed an increase in the anti-Christian sentiment of the government. Yet, we were never in fear of our neighbors nor of being jailed for any serious offense.
Occasionally, a Christian worker would be arrested for distributing Christian literature and held briefly, until authorities realized that no laws were broken. Up until Tilmann’s murder, only one other Christian worker had been martyred, and that was in the 1980s.
On April 18, 2007, my kids were in school, and I was going about my daily routine. Mid-morning, I had tried to phone Tilmann but his phone was turned off. It was odd, but I was not particularly concerned. A bookkeeper was to come that day to Tilmann’s office, and I thought perhaps they had gone to a meeting or a government building where phones weren’t allowed.
As the day wore on, it became apparent something violent had occurred in our city. Reports were that an American had been killed, but we didn’t know any Americans. After a flurry of activity and phone calls from friends and neighbors inquiring about Tilmann’s whereabouts and his safety, and with two of the three kids with me, I went to a local hospital hoping to find him or to get information.
The hospital personnel seemed to know who we were when we arrived, yet I couldn’t get a straight answer. After several hours of runarounds, I grabbed the arm of a Turkish official, something females don’t do in that country, and demanded an answer. It was then that I learned Tilmann was murdered for his Christian faith. In fact, five Muslim assailants had tortured him and his Christian friends Necati Aydin and Ugar Yuksel before killing them inside their small office. The assailants reasoned that they were defending Turkish culture and Islam religion.
The next few days were a blur, but God used the common grace and decency of our lost neighbors to meet our needs. In fact, our Muslim neighbors practically did everything for several weeks in our household—meals, chores and providing constant companionship. The love we had shown them was returned to us in full.
Unable to sleep well after Tilmann’s death, I recall arising in the middle of the night and finding strength in the words of Psalm 119—the lengthy meditation on the Word of the Lord—and realizing that I had been leaning too heavily on Tilmann’s faith. Over the next weeks and months, God taught me a rich lesson: He wanted me to dive deeply into His Word, not merely feed off of Tilmann’s rich knowledge of Scripture. Ten minutes in the morning would no longer do. He was calling me to plumb the depths.
I also sensed, after listening to a sermon on Job, that God trusted me enough to take Tilmann from us. Only a week or so after he was murdered, our oldest daughter, who was 13, boldly announced to me that she believed we needed to stay in Turkey and finish the work that her father had started. So while several other missionary families were quickly called back to their home countries by their sponsoring organizations, we opted to stay and continue our work. And God has been tremendously faithful to us.
Ten years later, I am still working in Turkey a good portion of the year while also living in Germany for several months at a time as my younger children emerge into adulthood. Our oldest child is in Ankara, Turkey, studying to be an English teacher. For all three children, Turkish is their mother tongue, and all three are striving to serve the Lord.
The work in Turkey is no easier than it was; in many ways it is more difficult as anti-Christian tensions mount. But like Jesus instructed, we will take up our cross and follow Him. The costs are high. There is no cheap way to follow Him. But if you really love the people you go to, and you love the Lord, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, all is in the Lord’s hands.
He is a loving, caring and faithful Lord. He has proven that to us—over and over again. ©2017 Susanne Geske
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